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ANOTHER POLITICS OF ATTENTION: Shifting Self-Sense, Shifting Time (2013)

© Nita Little (Please see copy and citation stipulations below.)

When doing pottery my two hands work individually as one - forming the clay they make a bowl. Together, acting uniquely, they make one action.

            I take you to the attentional time practices in Contact Improvisation that I teach dancers in Israel, Brazil, throughout Europe, and most recently in Kyiv. I have been part of a worldwide effort of people developing this dance form for over 40 years - since its beginning. Contact Improvisation is a dance in which two (or more) people touch giving their physical weight as an exchange, as a form of communication. It is organized by attention. Touch is the sensory foundation for this giving that speaks to another politics of attention that I would like to share with you. When we slow experiential time down, we see that touch takes us deep inside intrapersonal and ecological relationalities that the dance form exposes as social values.


            I teach Contact Improvisation as politics in action for a few reasons. First, I am teaching an ethos of giving, both weight and attention must be given. Second, giving attention as an embodied practice generates new senses of the self, opening up creative relational dynamics, dynamics that not only have healing effects, but as Teresa Brennan points out, attention is “living” and “living attention” is a biological force that encourages well-being (34).

            Here’s a practice. To begin, I ask dancers to extend themselves, their sense of self, outward spatially – attentionally – moving in contact with another dancer – feeling the coming moment, feeling the moment that just was, and the moment they are currently in. Because they are extending themselves into their partner, they can feel the repercussions of their actions, of their embodiment. Keeping track of future, past, and present asks more and more of them, attending to the different durations of a head, a hand, a torso twisting a partner’s weight into the ground.

            Asking more than they can attend to speeds their attention up, until they pop! Oscillating their attention rapidly and continuously into limbs, partner-limbs, the ground, lets their thinking-flesh, what I call peripheral attention, emerge. Now, two things happen. Engaging and embodying this peripheral intelligence, allows them to move faster, physically faster. Meanwhile, experiencing each slice of attention slows experiential time down. Let’s move into the slowing of time, so that we can feel the difference in kinds of spatio-temporal attention.

            When at the edge of a fall, for instance, where two bodies are tumbling toward the ground, the fall can be experienced as a large spatial trajectory, a potential, in which one can attend to many possibilities and many actions in those possibilities – retracting hands, twisting torsos, shifting weight, tilting head, bringing out landing pads, extending limbs. This slowed time, through fast oscillations of attention, through peripheral intelligence, is the opposite of someone experiencing a fall as one action, one large chunk with little or no choice in their trajectory. That would be direct attention on the fall vs the myriad of attentional actions within the fall. We need both, awareness of the trajectory and the detailing of choice.

            At this hyper slowed speed the self identifies as an attentional sensing – a “ self sensing”. Dancers come to realize that they, as self-sensings, are in a relational exchange as coextending minding bodies or bodying minds: the touch of place or the touch of space. Where they identify, there their self-sensing shifts the potentials of the moment. The embodiment of place is located, “I am here now”. The embodiment of space is expansive, “This as me is here/where, now/then”.

            To teach embodiment that is both located and expansive I ask students to begin with an image of a ship… an attentional-relational ship which we will compare with boats and trains. I want to move dancers into the experience of the very small in oscillation with the very large, to feel themselves as a spatial organization, such as a trajectory, perceiving its potentials for change, while making multi-faceted finely tuned local decisions along the way.

             When I dance with you, initially we meet as two bodies in motion, two touching flesh to flesh. But then the experience of our touching radically changes, and this is key, so that its location is no longer just on our surfaces but it is spatial. This means that touch becomes fluidly felt on the inner and outer spaces of our shared bodyminds – and bodyminds are always contextual so that our fluid touching is relational as a bodymind environment, as an ecology in motion. I can use Erin Manning’s sense of worldings here – we are worlding. Our self-sensing shifts as ecologies of being. Surfaces now come and go, appear and vanish, and what emerges is a full geometry of spatially thinking relations, potentiating a far broader (wilder) dance. What then is the key to this relational emergence? The embodiment of attention, the fleshly giving of attention drives experiential emergence radically changing the potentials in our relations. And as Manning points out, political practices are bound and unleashed by our relational experiences of one another; the dance of touch is an apt metaphor for functional social politics.

 Embodied attention is key to the emergent potential in dancers’ experiences that make available new possibilities in their relations. The ship metaphor is a tool to produce emergence that can drastically shift dancers’ self-sense through shifting their time sense.


            Lets consider this vocabulary. Embodiment is a giving of physically based attention. It is a generous flexible self-sensing. As we give our embodied attention; we give our self-sensing, we touch place, space or both. Touch, always two ways, is co-extensive, and in the important case of touching as a bodyminding it is not fleshbound, it is relational. “I” as a functional identity may, in my dancing moments, be a size inclusive of you. What exposes this extension in its materiality is an ability to slice time so thinly that the contemporaneity of the virtual and the actual – our actualizing- appears.  Then, identity flows. As an ecological action, a shifting self-sensing, fluid identities shift the politics that potentiate relations of communion and that is why shifting matters. Shifting produces emergent potentials.

            In a longer version of this paper, I am in conversation with four theorists who have helped me unpack issues of giving attention as an unstable ecological action of self-sensing. They are: feminist science writer Karen Barad, who speaks on the scale of electrons; Erin Manning together with Brian Massumi who mostly speak on the scale of the body; and geographer, Doreen Massey, who speaks on the scale of the globe. Each of these theorists is interested in relationalities. And, but for Massey, each of these theorists is interested in the presence of the virtual within experience. Massey brings the significance of the imaginary into this work. Her “place” is my self. Her “space” is my sensing. She is useful in discussing “actualizing” because she forces me to change the scale and the emphasis of dancers’ experience.


            For my work, we can think of the actual, together with the virtual, as forming experience – experience is actualized by their dynamic, the dancer is actualizing her/his self-sensing. But what do we mean by the virtual and how does it play in the formation of the self-sensing experience? What is a self?  

            The image: My actual embodied attention is a ship moving through the waters of time. Everything that is water, the medium of transport of the ship, is virtual. The ship is the incidence of my attention; it is my self-sensing. The speed of my maneuverability is equivalent to my embodied experience of time – a fast ship displaces a lot of time, experiencing time slowly. In contrast, at the other end of the scale, a train is barely able to choose its path. Its means and its medium of transport are preset iron rods on stable soil and rock. A maneuverable ship experiences the details of each moment through its rapid oscillations of attention, the multi-faceted dynamics of spatio-temporal relations appear as the movement of the virtual waters; a train barely notices its own passage, it is only in relation with its own actual starting and stopping. Its medium of virtuality is insignificant to its choices.

            The medium of time details the virtual responsiveness of the environments of being. Thus the ship moves time ahead of itself, potentiating possibilities, its passage creates concurrent bow waves which are its immediate environmental effects and its passage is visible as a wake: lots of motion, lots of virtual effects. A train has few of these. To the ship, the medium of time presents a virtual that is fluid and responsive. To the train, the motion of its temporal medium appears fixed.


            Two dancers who are falling together may feel the virtual as it actually lives in their partner’s body, they have time and flexibility to make choices to the benefit of both beings. Two dancers who attend to their body only, who are located within their flesh without a virtual self-sensing that is ecologically relational have no choice as they fall. They are a danger to one another.

            I need for dancers to experience the virtual as an aspect of the actual, to be “actualizing”. I tell them to go beyond the experience of their own somatics by reaching into space as if they actually could feel the changes taking place within the ‘space’ of another person’s body.  They do this and then they notice that when their partner makes a decision, even a subtle one, the touch changes.


            This is an experience of the virtual informing the actual. At these times they are touching one another and the world on multiple dimensions in order for their relational practices to quicken and change from reactive relationalities, to responsive and responsible relationalities: from beginning tango dancers to expert ones; from beginning Contact dancers to skillful ones.

            When dancers go further and recognize that the change within their partner changes them and their potentials moment to moment, this then is the act of actualizing. This is feeling time through touch.  As they identify with this expansive self-sensing, dancers progress beyond responsivity to something even more immediate, to “relationalities in communion”. And relations of communion are necessarily relations of good-will. This is the third reason why I teach Contact worldwide as political action.


            Time practices determine the varieties of spatial accords and the political relations they potentiate. When two people fall together in communion, they are interwoven, they are actualizing together; their actual and their virtual form the fullness of their self-sensings. Their identity, as with their boundary definitions, are fluid and in motion, inclusive of one another. Dancing, I feel the presence of my weight within my partner’s form. I feel them knowing I know that weight and its influence. Each millisecond of action embodies an ability to act with and as the world in time that is so flexible it is touched. My partner’s thoughts as actions are also mine.


            The identity that accelerated and articulated time practices offer is the identity of self-sensing in communion as an ecology of being. Self, identified with the motion of attention potentiates communion. As dancers we not only fall together, we fly while we fall, making all of the tiny adjustments as a shared accord… better because of the other. Like two hands, our neurologies are co-extensive. I am now moving together in time as/with my partner who is my self-sensing. We are in communion, a more immediate state than response. I am no longer reacting to my partner, no longer even responding to my partner. I am functioning as my partner. Again, think of how two hands move together. So when my partner moves I am already moved, not by making the decision to move, that decision has already been made, but rather as they move I function as the multiplicity that is also them. Therefore, experientially, at least in this instant, I am acting as one body when visually you might identify two. Yet my inner sensing is of a multitude.

This means that my identity, again in this instant, is no longer bound in its size, its shape, its experiential scale or its number. This translates into dancing as more freedom, less fear.  Barad says,

 “ In an important sense, in a breathtakingly intimate sense, touching, sensing, is what matter does, or rather, what matter is: matter is condensations of response-ability. Touching is a matter of response. Each of “us” is constituted in response-ability. Each of “us” is constituted as responsible for the other, as the other. ( Barad, 2012): 215

Barad finds that we become individuals out of a “void”, a union that suggests the potentials of communion, that is spatially invested by no-thing.

            I concur with Barad’s politics while being interested in approaching the issue of union from the other direction, toward a practice of communion. Barad’s concern is in how we become individuals out of communion, how communion or void condenses into response-able matter. I’m interested in how to move into communion from a practice of response – ability. Let’s look at how it plays out on the dance floor. i) I am not responsible for my partner, or else I quickly become my partner’s keeper and that spells deep physical if not political danger. I move with my partner and as my partner, therefore while response-able I go further. I am responsive as a larger self-sensing, a communion of being. ii) That me, that identity, however, is a continually shifting boundary of experience. It is tightly woven with my imaginal embodiment and the in-formation of knowing through moving. iii) My knowing, as a self-sensing, is multi-faceted as different forms of thinking/sensing, i.e. I feel thinking. iv) I become multiply sensing through a complexity of levels of thinking which includes my partner’s thinking. Self identified as a sensing brings me into actions of resonance with my environments. As ecologies, both the human and the non-human have virtual and actual tangential trajectories through multiple scales that include the very small, the global, the present, the future and the past. And, v) As one hand acts toward the other hand in communion, not in concert, I act in knowledge of the political, but not via its formative concerns.  

            The politics of communion are basically a politics of the self, embodied as spacetimes.Neither only bound nor boundary-less, identities are created in micro-moments in motion. This is a giving of identity. Here, identity is both ephemeral and profound. Identity is Massey’s place: while local it is global, it is spatial and secure. Its meaning is in continuous variation, not bound by ideological repetitions.

            Communion offers a constitutively different politics that is the result of an attentional practice which shifts self-sensing from actions that are bound by individuated bodies acting on bodies, to extending bodyminds with fluid borders. Individuation, always a potential, is less interesting because it offers fewer possibilities for complex actions. Flexibility and potential lies in the relational motion of continually arising ecologies that shift form and function. These are emergent potentials latent in rethinking the self as a sensing ecology. These ecologies are detailed actions of identifying with the motion of one’s embodied attention, the ship and the sea. These ecologies arise through the giving of oneself to ones virtual field of experience, one’s actual experience of being a bodymind, and by grasping the creativity there, within relations.

© Nita Little Nelson, PhD Candidate, Performance Studies, University of California, Davis. This paper was given at the Performance Studies International Conference at Stanford University, Palo Alto, California on June 29 th, 2013.  Please inform me if you use material from this paper, either its theoretical stance or its vocabulary, in your own writing so that I can catalogue the development of this material. This piece is part of the final chapter of my dissertation, Articulating Presence: Creative Actions of Attention in Dance Practices. If you are interested in receiving this document when it is completed please contact me at ; Also of interest may be writing available on my blog:

Barad, Karen. (2012). On Touching: The Inhuman That Therefore I Am. differences, 23(Numer 3), 206-223.

Manning, Erin. (2009). Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy. Cambridge, London: The MIT Press.

Massey, Doreen. (2005). For Space. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

Massumi, Brian. (2002). Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Erin Manning and Brian Massumi. "Just Like That,". Talk at UC Davis Jan 10, 2013.

Noë, Alva. (2009). Out of our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness, New York, Hill and Wang: a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Noë, A. (2012) The Varieties of Presence, Cambridge, MA, The President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Virtual, actual, actualize, oscillate, touching, self-sensing, peripheral-intelligence, communion.

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